Green building ‘an easy sell’ that’s gaining ground

Story by Tina Seaman * Photos by Emily Cikanek

In a region where water is relatively inexpensive, making the case to install water-efficient systems and fixtures in green buildings could prove challenging. But, George K. Tuhowski III isn’t worried. “To me, it’s an easy sell when you explain to people what their water is worth,” he says.

Tuhowski is not only a leading practitioner of green building in metropolitan Chicago — he is also a dedicated water steward. His personal philosophy is reflected through his job as general superintendent and director of sustainability at the Leopardo Companies and his recent role serving as the 2010 Chair of the Illinois Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

Yet his interest in green building stems from a much earlier age. George first started working in Chicago construction as a sophomore in high school, and he was shocked by how much waste occurs on job sites. Growing up in a family of eight children on Chicago’s South Side, George had been taught to be resourceful. As he puts it, “We weren’t being thrifty, we were just being smart.” So he began to salvage construction waste and brought scrap materials to recycling facilities.

But, George was also concerned about water waste. Fortunately, since he first started in the industry, building design and construction have come a long way toward sustainability and affordability. And he credits the USGBC for helping blaze the trail into a frontier that is much greener (and bluer, by saving water). In 2000, USGBC, which has 79 chapters throughout the country, including in Illinois and Indiana, laid the groundwork for the green building movement when it issued the first version of LEED criteria (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), creating a common definition and standard for green building.

In practice, George says, “Every building project is unique and you have to address it on its own merits.” The LEED rating system helps guide the building process from start to finish, from where to acquire materials to how to construct the building based on the site’s environmental conditions, to post-construction processes. These steps help ensure that the building will be healthy for its occupants, energy-efficient, and have a lower impact on limited natural resources and infrastructure. The LEED rating system is also used to evaluate buildings’ environmental performance and takes into account both construction type and life-cycle performance.

LEED uses a weighted credit and point system that includes water-efficiency as one of its five environmental performance categories. Buildings that incorporate water efficient landscaping, 20 percent or more indoor water use reduction, and innovative wastewater technologies can earn credits and  points – which ultimately translate into significant water and cost savings for clients.

While building green can cost more upfront – usually an average of one to 15 percent depending on the level of LEED certification (Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum) and site and building characteristics – according to George, clients are more willing to spend the initial premium once they realize the long-term return on investment through operation and maintenance cost savings. The City of Aurora’s LEED Gold certified Police Headquarters & Branch Court Facility demonstrates this on a remarkable scale. Aurora partnered with Leopardo as construction manager to build its $66 million, 154,000 sq. ft. public safety headquarters, which boasts a 27 percent reduction in energy use and 30 percent reduction in water usage compared with a standard building of similar dimensions. All told, energy and water efficiency reduce the facility’s utility bills by more than $100,000 per year.

The project also features green infrastructure stormwater controls that significantly decrease runoff from the facility area. By installing green infrastructure, including, permeable pavement, vegetated-bioswales, and an infiltration trench, approximately 63,500 gallons of rainwater is kept onsite in a retention pond or naturally-filtered and recharged into the ground.

Beyond incentives, George also believes that education is an effective tool to influence people’s water usage. George says his clients are shocked when they learn that water-guzzling appliances, such as air conditioners, refrigerators and freezers, and indoor plumbing systems consume not only the most water in every home, but also the most energy. When they realize that water-efficient devices, such as low-flow toilets, efficient dishwashers, and showerhead and faucet aerators, can reduce their water usage by up to 30 percent, decrease their carbon footprint and also deliver cost savings downstream, they are usually sold. The federal government’s ENERGY STAR and WaterSense rebate programs for efficient water appliances also encourage George’s clients to make eco- and wallet-friendly choices.

To help his clients save even more water, energy, and money, George advocates using green infrastructure, such as rooftop gardens, bioswales, and permeable pavement, to filter and/or capture rainwater. “Rainwater is a commodity,” said George, “so we shouldn’t let it go to waste.” Property owners who employ these green techniques can reuse rainwater for non-drinkable purposes like irrigating or let it slowly soak into the ground to help prevent flooding and recharge our local water supplies. A one-inch rainstorm deposits a staggering 27,154 gallons on one acre.  That’s about how much water the average person uses every nine months.  Capturing and using rainwater for watering lawns and gardens can decrease the burden on our drinking water supplies and decrease sewage treatment costs by reducing stormwater runoff.

A consistent policy and regulatory framework also can encourage green development, but George advises introducing regulations with a tiered approach. He points out that buildings owned by the City of Chicago, Cook County and State of Illinois, as well as federally owned buildings, already have to be constructed to the minimum LEED Silver standard, which includes water-efficiency measures and on-site stormwater management. Chicago also provides incentivizes to build green through its Green Permit Program that speeds up the permitting process for projects that follow green building guidelines to about six weeks. George also notes that Evanston, Naperville, Aurora, Hoffman Estates, Orland Park, and several other municipalities in the Chicagoland region have embraced LEED and other green building best practices and are reaping the rewards.

With all of the benefits of green building practices, especially significant water and energy savings that translate into significant annual cost savings, it’s hard to understand why it hasn’t become the norm. The biggest barrier still seems to be fear of higher initial costs, but it’s clear that the long term savings can add up. Thanks to George’s efforts to raise awareness about what our water’s worth and build sustainably, our city is growing green and blue.

Conservation tips

Save up to $300 through a federal tax credit. Water heating can account for 14 to 25 percent of the energy consumed in your home. By installing a more efficient water heater, you can receive a tax credit and reduce your carbon footprint.

Save an extra $135 each year on your utility bills. By replacing older clothes washers with an ENERGY STAR model, you will use about 37 percent less energy and 50 percent less water with each load, reducing your bills. Bonus: Many new washers have greater capacity, which means fewer total loads (and more free time!).

Save a further $170 by installing WaterSense fixtures.  Simple home repair projects like installing a $7 aerator or $20 showerhead can lead to real savings over time.

WOWW factors

2,162 gallons of rain

The amount of water a large tree can intercept in a large storm, helping recharge water supplies and reduce runoff.


The estimated annual savings from converting the rooftops of approximately five Chicago city blocks to green roofs.

1.05 billion gallons a year

The amount of water diverted back into the ground, thanks to the City of Aurora’s Rooftops to Rivers program, which installed green infrastructure on a citywide scale.


LEED Green Building Certification System FAQs

CMAP’s  Model Water Use Conservation Ordinance

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